God Beyond Language
Psalm 103:13 “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.”
Isaiah 66:12-13 “For this is what the Lord says… As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.’”
How do we begin to speak about God? God, who created the heavens and the earth, who knit us together in our mother’s womb, who is far beyond our understanding or comprehension, desires to be in relationship with us, and yet, our language limits our ability to even begin to describe the unfathomable mystery of who God is. Traditionally, male pronouns have been used in reference to God. The Old Testament uses mainly male pronouns or the term “Lord” for God. But God’s attributes and behavior are described in both male and female examples. Psalm 103 compares God to a “father who has compassion on his children.” Isaiah 66 reports God saying, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.” The behavior and work of God is far beyond our scope of “male” and “female”, but we live within a limit of language.
In Genesis 1:27 we read, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This verse is proclaiming that both male and female are created in the image of God, because God is beyond gender and sexuality. The New Testament uses different imagery for the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is seen as a “dove” descending on Jesus at his baptism. The tongues of fire in Acts 2 which descend upon the disciples are a representation of the power of the Holy Spirit which rests on each of them. The Greek and Hebrew words typically associated with spirit, wind, and fire, “pneuma” and “ruah” are both “feminine” nouns. So how do we even begin to speak about God? It is not un-Biblical to refer to God in feminine pronouns. It is not our traditional practice to do so however, and so if you are not accustomed to the practice, it can be jarring.
In my preaching, I attempt to avoid personal pronouns when referring to God. If I am speaking about Jesus, then a masculine pronoun is appropriate, for obvious reasons. The reason for avoiding personal pronouns is that God is far beyond our understanding of male and female and encompasses both genders as being made in the “imago dei” - image of God. For someone who has been traumatized by the men in his or her life, referring to God as “he” can be a painful reminder. It can also create an opportunity for that Heavenly Father to redeem and restore the image that a human father has destroyed. When speaking about God, we do so with fear and trepidation. Who am I to presume to know anything about God? When Job hears directly from God, his response is this:
“I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted… Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know… My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” -Job 42:1-6
This side of heaven, we can never fully comprehend the power, majesty, and mystery of God; but that should not keep us from sharing how we experience God in our lives. So keep on speaking about God, even with the language limitations and ever-evolving relationship we have with God. Continue to tell the story of how you experience God and how you walk faithfully with Jesus Christ. Continue to share with others the power of the Holy Spirit you see at work around you.
Gracious God, thank you for your loving relationship with us. Thank you that you have compassion on us like a loving Father. Thank you that you comfort us like a Heavenly Mother. Give us words to share your love with others. Give us courage to be bold in our witness of you. Amen.
~Pastor Hanna Peterson Shearer